“Our Outstanding Organizations”
Willie Kay used the proceeds of her business to strengthen Raleigh’s African American community. Links, Shaw University, Gay Matrons, Saint Augustine’s College (now University), National Association of College Women: these were just some of the civic and educational organizations that she supported during her lifetime.
A charter member of the Raleigh chapter of Links, a group of black women who raised money for education and charity, Kay remained active in the group throughout her life, as did her sisters. She also patronized high-profile social functions like the Alpha Kappa Alpha Debutante Ball, Blue Revue, and Jabberwock.
A Genteel Gift
The Otey sisters participated in Links, an African American women’s civic organization. Elizabeth Otey Constant made glove bags like this one for fellow members.
Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church
Throughout her life, Willie Kay found a spiritual home at Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh. The congregation was an extension of her family, and her family made up a significant proportion of the membership. She was confirmed there, married there, and participated as an active member for decades.
“I remembered just about everything about the church from the time I was about five years old.”
—Willie Otey Kay
These red Episcopal vestments symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit. Saint Ambrose clergy continue to wear and use them on Pentecost, a holiday that commemorates the Holy Spirit’s descent unto Christ’s disciples. The Otey sisters likely made the vestments to celebrate the new church building, which opened in 1965. The embellishments adorn the rear of the garment because at that time the congregation used an east-facing altar, and the priest would perform the Eucharist with his back to the congregation.
Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Easter Sunday (April 14, 1963). Courtesy of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church
Taking It All In
Willie Kay received widespread acclaim during her lifetime. McCall’s magazine did a story on her work in 1935, and in 1951 Life magazine featured one of Kay’s debutante gowns on its cover. Local publications also highlighted her creations, and the publicity led to even more recognition and renown.
Despite her growing status, Kay maintained her signature humility. She carried on her business for nearly six decades, sending all five of her children to college with the proceeds, and sewing well into her 90s.